Traffic on an autobahn (motorway) near Frankfurt, Germany. Image Credit: Reuters

A blistering heatwave prompted Germany to impose speed restrictions on usually limit-free stretches of its high-speed motorways Wednesday, the latest sign of extreme weather events ruffling Europe’s largest economy.

State authorities are reducing speeds to as low as 100 kilometres per hour on some stretches because of fears that the unusually high temperatures could create potentially deadly cracks on Autobahn surfaces, a highways agency spokesman said. Temperatures in Germany on Wednesday could surpass a June high of 38.2 degrees Celsius, according to the country’s DWD weather service. The all-time record of 40.3 degrees, set in July 2015, could also fall.

Three swimmers died in France where the temperature is forecast to rise up to 45 degree Celsius, breaking the all-time record of 44.1 degree Celsius in the country.

“The forecast is all about the heat for Europe in the next few days, potentially record-breaking heat across parts of western Europe as we tap into air all the way from northern Africa,” said BBC weather presenter Susan Powell.

“Getting pulled up ahead an area of low pressure, which will get stalled out in the Atlantic. High pressure starts to build, we lose the rain and we tap into that southerly airflow carrying the warm air as far north as the United Kingdom,” she said.


Expected all-time high temperature forecast in France

Meteorologists are expecting previous June highs to be approached and possibly exceeded in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland, with all-time records likely to fall in some countries.

“The latest forecasts leave little room for doubt: we are heading for a new national record,” said French forecaster Guillaume Woznica. French national meteorological service Météo-France was now predicting peaks of 45 degree Celsius in the towns of Nîmes and Carpentras on Friday, she added.

The so-called Saharan Bubble weather is understood to have been linked to the deaths of three swimmers at beaches in France, according to local reports. French news outlet LCI said they had died in separate incidents on beaches in southern France.

A man aged 70 suffered a cardiac arrest in calm water and was believed to have been a victim of “thermic shock” after coming into contact with the water. Two other persons died in similar circumstances. A woman, 62, died at a beach near Montpellier, and a man aged 75 died at another beach nearby.

French firefighters have warned against swimming in cold water during the heatwave to avoid so-called “hydrocution”. French forecasters have predicted that the country may experience its “hottest June” on record.

Meteorologists blame climate change for sending a blast of air from the Sahara desert into Western Europe. The sweltering heat echoes a sustained drought in 2018 across Germany that halted shipping on the Rhine River, hampered power generation, sparked forest fires and forced the country to import grain for the first time in 24 years. Rising temperatures are making violent convective storms more likely, mirroring a trend in the US Midwest.

Changes to the jet stream, which would normally blow in cooler weather from the Atlantic Ocean, are contributing to “the build-up of hot and dry conditions over the continent, sometimes turning a few sunny days into dangerous heatwaves,” said Dim Coumou, a climatologist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

The early summer heat has already sparked wildfires outside Berlin. In Paris, volunteers distributed water to homeless people after the French government closed schools and activated a contingency plan to protect residents. The Red Cross warned that excessive heat could cause dizziness, convulsions and hallucinations, especially for older people. Electricity prices across the continent surged on expectations Europeans would turn on fans and air conditioning units to keep cool.

Europe’s heat in June — part of a string of extraordinary weather patterns including temperatures of more than 50 degrees in India that killed over 180 people — is the latest reminder of the tangible effects of climate change.

The heatwave is the second to hit Europe this year after a similar weather pattern pushed temperatures above 20 degrees for several days in February, sparking wildfires in northern England and the Alps.

Temperatures in Switzerland are about 10 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year. The high temperatures means glaciers will likely shrink further, increasing the likelihood that the Rhine will again be too shallow for shipping later this year, according to Switzerland’s federal weather agency.

Meanwhile, Europeans are adapting to this week’s heat in ways large and small. Brussels has suspended horse-and-carriage rides for tourists. The decision was taken out of respect for the animals’ welfare, said Fabian Maingain, the Belgian city’s chief for economic affairs, told Le Soir newspaper. Similar decisions have been taken by Antwerp and Ostend.

In Hemer — a town about 35 kilometres southwest of Dortmund — a man on Saturday took off his clothes in a supermarket’s frozen-food department to escape the heat that is predicted to peak on Wednesday. After customers alerted staff, he grabbed a banana and a can of liquor before attempting to flee the store, local police said on Twitter.

The ‘Saharan bubble’

A 3,000-km wide plume of hot air, dubbed the “Saharan bubble”, blowing across Africa is expected to bring hot conditions across the continent to be followed by days of widespread downpours and flooding in the UK.

The UK’s Met Office said temperatures would become “increasingly warm over the next few days”. The highest temperature on record for June is 35.6 degree Celsius, recorded in London on June 29, 1957 and Southampton on June 28, 1976.

In Spain, forecaster Silvia Laplana tweeted a picture of an all-red weather map captioned: “El infierno (hell) is coming.” She later tweeted while summer is hot, this “extensive and intense” heat was “not normal”.

In Germany, temperatures above 40 degree Celsius are possible in some places, topping the country’s previous June record of 38.2 degree Celsius, recorded in Frankfurt in 1947, reports say.